Butterfly Shooting Tips and Locations

Our guest blogger this week is Debbi Koplen.



Butterfly season is almost upon us (May through September), and the WashingtonD.C.area is not lacking in places to photograph them.  A list of locations will be provided at the end of this narrative.

 Shooting Tips:

If one wishes to photograph the intricate details of a butterfly or fill the frame with the butterfly, it would be best to shoot with a dedicated macro lens.  I recommend a macro lens that provides at least 1:1 ratio, meaning that the image will be life-sized.  Macro adapters, such as those you can attach to an iPhone or a Lensbaby lens would also work.

I do not recommend using a tripod because butterflies flutter from place to place and a tripod would limit your ability to keep up.  I have used a monopod, which provides some stability while allowing for more freedom of movement over a tripod.  However, I usually shoot hand-held using manual, not auto focus.  I control my focus by moving closer and further from the butterfly rather than adjusting the lens. Auto focus is usually not fast enough to get the shot unless the butterfly has settled and is not moving, which is generally not the case.

Most butterfly shooters prefer that the eyes, antennae, wings, and abdomen are sharp, while allowing the background to fall out of focus.  An out of focus background creates that desirable creamy look, or bokeh.  Quality of bokeh varies by lens.  An out of focus background will also get rid of unwanted distractions, keeping the attention on the butterfly.  To achieve an out of focus background, use a shallow depth of field (DOF) when shooting. To get a shallow DOF, you’ll need to shoot with large apertures (smaller numbers like 2.8, 4.0, etc.) and/or shoot with a telephoto lens (I suggest 105mm or longer).  To get more focal length from your lens, you can couple it with a teleconverter.  Just remember that you sacrifice a stop or two of light when using a teleconverter.  The longer the focal length, the further you can shoot from the butterfly while still filling the frame with the subject, thus reducing your chances of spooking the butterfly off.  I shoot with a Nikon 200mm micro lens, giving me ample room between the lens and the butterfly.

To see what is in focus and out of focus, try using your DOF preview button, which is found on most mid to pro-level camera bodies.  You can also experiment with different apertures (bracket), or you can just check your LCD display and adjust as you go.  You will want to shoot as parallel to the butterfly as possible (on the same plane) to maximize focus area of the butterfly.  You might want to experiment with focus; however, and break the general rule of keeping the butterfly sharp.  I have a shot of a butterfly “coming in for a landing” with the flower in complete focus and the butterfly soft.   Rules were meant to be broken in photography!

Another general preference is to freeze movement.  Unless it’s cold outside, butterflies flit, flitter, flutter, and fly, and seem to always be on the go.  You need to freeze the action if you want your subject sharp.  To do this, you will need a shutter speed of at least 1/500 of a second, and faster if you have enough light. If you are using a wide aperture, you already have an available light advantage. You can augment this by increasing the ISO.  In addition, you can use fill flash to freeze action, but I prefer natural light.  Again, rules in photography were meant to be broken. Try slowing down your shutter speed to document the movement of the wings, especially if you can hold the rest of the scene in focus. I have seen a local photographer do some very lovely work using this technique.

Butterflies look best in bright diffused light, so either a very bright, but overcast day or an indoor butterfly habitat with sky lighting (on a sunny day) is best.  If shooting in full sun, be mindful of not getting your shadow in the photograph.

Butterflies spook easily so don’t be surprised if they fly off when you approach them.  Your best bet is to situate yourself somewhere near an area that would attract them and wait. As long as you are still and quiet, they’ll land close to you.


In the Washington, D.C.area, you have the choice of indoor and outdoor butterfly locations.  My personal favorite location is the “Wings of Fancy” butterfly house located at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, Maryland.  They open this year on May 5th, and stay open through mid-September. It has sky lighting, so the light quality is spectacular for butterfly photography, plus you are protected overhead if it rains. They import butterflies from North America, Mexico, and Central America.  It takes them about a month to get fully stocked, so if you go early, you may want to visit later in the season to see more species. There is a small admission fee. Here is their website:

An outdoor location for photographing butterflies is the Smithsonian Butterfly Garden located on the 9th Street side of the National Museum of Natural History on National Mall.  It is a winding path filled with flowers that attract butterflies (butterfly weed). It is fairly active with butterflies on hot, sunny days.

Another outdoor location is Meadowlark Gardens in Vienna, VA.  There are areas of the garden that grow butterfly weed just to the sides of the main walking path that lead down into the property from the Visitor’s Center. Again, on hot summer days, you will see the most butterfly action.

Aside from these specific locations (all of which also offer flower photography), butterflies can generally be found during the warmer months in gardens, wildlife habitats, and public parks.  Once while hiking along a ridge in July in the Blue RidgeMountains, I came across hundreds, if not thousands, of butterflies in one area. I could not believe my eyes! I photographed multiple butterflies in a single frame. I re-visited the location a few years later only to find a few butterflies congregating.  I think the changes in our environment play havoc with their migration.

Finally, if you want the complete science on butterflies and how best to photograph them, you may want to check out this book on Amazon by photography professional and naturalist William B. Folsom.

Butterfly Photographer’s Handbook:  A Comprehensive Reference for Nature Photographers


Deborah’s bio:

Deborah Koplen is a self-taught amateur photographer who lives inNorthern Virginia and works for the federal government.  In 2001, her mild interest in photography turned into a full-blown passion and she now spends most of her free time refining her photographic technique.  Debbi enjoys shooting a variety of subjects as long as it holds visual interest for her. She is mainly drawn to interesting light, with the subject coming second.  She has won a number of local and online photography contests, to include several Picture of the Month and Picture of the Year awards.  She has also been published in National Park calendars and brochures.  Debbi’s work is scheduled to be featured at a prominent local camera store this summer.

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